Frank Portman’s King Dork

March 2, 2010 at 1:59 pm (Young Adult Lit)

While I thought moments of this book were very funny, I was mostly annoyed by the book. I don’t know if its because I haven’t read “Catcher in the Rye” in years, and am not part of what Portman calls the “Catcher Cult.” I can see that many of the things in this book are meant to be references to “Catcher,” but I’m not close enough to both books to make the connections, which mainly makes those connections have the irritating feeling of a reference that is slightly out of reach. I also felt with this book, like with “Feed” by M. T. Anderson, that this is a book written by an adult for other adults dressed up as a YA novel. The constant references to 70s music, as well as the curious absence of appropriate technology, make this seem like the author is imagining his 70s adolescence as it would have happened in the 90s. This also something that feels true about the central premise, the retelling of “Catcher in the Rye” for a new generation.  I don’t think “Catcher” is as important a book about teen alienation, or at as singular of an example in the 90s as it was in the 60s or 70s. I didn’t identify with the protagonist, and I don’t think his situation is one that would be widely identified with by contemporary teenagers. In the age of the internet everyone can find people with similar interests. Also, by the end of the novel, the character has swung too far to the opposite extreme. He’s not popular, but he has a place in the social structure of his school, and he’s getting three blow jobs a week from “semi-hot girls,” in what seems to be an unnecessary touch of misogyny.

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Feed by M. T. Anderson

February 3, 2010 at 6:01 pm (Young Adult Lit)

This novel seems to me to have been written to appeal to young adult publishers, rather than an authentic young adult audience. Anderson takes two of the most saleable elements of young adult fiction, the fantasy/sci-fi setting and the issue novel and squeezes them together in this book. His sci-fi is laden with cliches: people live in bubbles/domes, they drive flying cars that can steer themselves, and they are constantly hooked into the internet through some kind of  physical implant. His issues are just as stale, and designed to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of middle class American teenagers: death, love/relationships, the environment and popularity. Anderson does have moments of real humor in this book. The back story behind his “ugly” friend’s appearance, and his history as a genetic clone of Abraham  Lincoln is one of these moments, as are all appearances of the main character’s father, a man who expertly mocks a certain kind of increasingly visible involved-but-cool dad (the kind of father I imagine Matthew McConaughey would be). However, these instances of humor often seem overly subtle for a teenage audience, designed instead to appeal to the critics who have lauded this book. And even in its flashes of brilliance, the humor isn’t enough to lift the entire novel above its cliches.

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The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer

January 26, 2010 at 8:00 pm (Young Adult Lit)

This book took the form of a dystopia, centered around a child-clone named Matt. Like “Big Splash”, “House of the Scorpion” dresses up adult problems in children’s bodies, and presents them through the eyes of child narrators. However, Matt Stevens in “Big Splash,” had a child’s, or at least  a young adult’s problems. He was looking for a lost parent, and wondering which one of two girls who liked him he should chose. Matteo from “HOuse of the Scorpion” flies by a child’s problems and fully engages with very adult problems of identity. He spends a large part of the narrative asking himself, “Who am I?” a problem made more acute by his status as a clone, and his dubious legal status. As a result of this he also spends a lot of time asking himself what it means to be human. With these child dystopias, (“Ender’s Game” came to mind pretty much constantly as I was reading this book) I have trouble believing that children can be picking up on all of the existential questions that are posed by the book. However, these questions don’t seem totally inappropriate either, given that children and particularly teenagers are struggling to figure out who they are and what they want their place in the world to be.

I also struggled with the end of the novel. As a reader, the wrap-up and tying up all of the loose ends was immensely satisfying, and also convient. However, there seemed to be several moments at the end that didn’t get the attention they deserved. What is the point of the Keepers, other than to establish a monolithic evil force outside the world of Opium? The Dia de los Muertos scene at the end seemed to be a missed oppportunity to create some kind of  real working symbolism, but ended up being mostly a gesture to Mexican culture. I think this novel is solid and thought-provoking but has a few problems of craft.

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Big Splash

January 20, 2010 at 6:09 pm (Young Adult Lit)

These novels, which are at first glance fairly dissimilar, have a number of overlapping  areas of interest. Both of these novels are about popularity, and the importance, or not of being the “popular kid,” especially in the middle school age range. However, one of the things that was most interesting to me is the importance of moms to these characters. The moms in these two stories present different versions of the stereotype about what it means to be “mom.” Greg, the main character from “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” has the quirky, involved mom. She is the character that is well meaning, probably reads parenting books, and consistently embarasses her children. Matt’s mom from “Big Splash,” on the other hand is the stereotypical overworked single parent. She is mostly an absence, rather than a presence in the story, and Matt seems to mother her as much as she mothers him, putting some of his own money in her emergency fund and staying awake until she comes home late at night. However, when he really needs someone to talk to, Matt’s mom forces, and almost tricks him into opening up and telling her about his problems, namely that he likes two girls and he doesn’s know which one to chose.

These characters both caught my attention because they were stereotypes. Why do young adult writers with otherwise complex characters use this easy out for adult characters? The other adult characters in these novels are filling somewhat stereotypical roles, but the moms are one of the most important adult characters. Does the use of stereotypes make the original characters, who are also children, stand out in higher relief because they are silhouetted against the stereotype? Or do these (adult) writers really think that this is how children relate to adults? Some combination of the two?

My suspicion is that these writers seem to really think that this is how children relate to adults. Matt Stevens’ mom is somewhat removed from the evocatively noir world of his middle school, but she does not seem to fit in with the use of the noir genre in the rest of the novel. Ultimately, as an adult reader, her problems were as interesting to me as Matt’s (and the most deeply unsatisfying part of the novel is that we don’t find out what happens to Matt’s dad or what is going on between his mom and her boss), however she is far less developed as a character. 

Greg’s stereotyped view of his mom is much more in keeping with the rest of the novel. Greg sees everything through a lens of finely tuned self-interest, so his vision of his mom as oblivious, dorky and ultimately highly embarassing is not as out of step with the rest of the novel as Matt’s mom is with the rest of his world. In some ways I think Jeff Kinney has committed the greater offense though, because while Matt’s mom has interesting problems of her own, even as a stereotype, Greg’s mom is just a stereotype, and Kinney uses that stereotype to get in several cheap shots about parenting and the type of parents that are so widespread in the media today.

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